"Chat Noir" Collection

The Chat Noir cabaret was one of the few real mixing-grounds of avant-garde subculture with mainstream popular culture in the late 19th Century, becoming famous for its riotous combination of riotous dance, experimental comedy, both cutting-edge and dance-hall music, avant-garde poetry, and its eclectic clientele of Bohemian students and artists, urban workers, Symbolist writers, absinthe-addicts, society dilettantes, sex-workers, and eventually curious tourists.

The nightclub was the gathering-place and performance venue for a shifting, overlapping array of avant-garde groups including the Fumistes (Smokers), the Jemen-foutites (Idontgivea-shitists), the Hydropathes (Water-haters / The Rabid), the Hirsutes (The Beardeds), and the Incohérents (The Incoherent). Soon it launched its own journal, edited by Rodolphe Sallis and Alphonse Allais, which became simultaneously a weekly document of the micro-community who met regularly at the cabaret and an influential magazine of avant-garde humour with a readership of 20,000. 

Surprisingly for a magazine with such a broad readership, Chat Noir provides an unusually intimate view of the community which produced it; in its pages can be found slang and key-words specific to them, humorous themes picked up and tossed around from one writer to another, constant dedications and references and in-jokes addressed to each other, memoirs about each other, and the apparent products of writing games or prompts probably done at the cabaret itself. It also provides insight into the interdisciplinary nature of the cabaret's activity, regularly incorporating poetry, cartoons, essays, short stories, and notated music. Direct collaborations across disciplines appear, and Georges Auriol contributes drawings, stories and essays. A poetics specific to the group can be discerned, heavily influenced by song: formally playful, favouring short lines with rhyme pushed to extremes, richly but erratically placed, sometimes playfully monotonous and even verging into pure repetition, often drawing humour from the rhyme pairs or from the semantic distortions made to accommodate them. Their comedy is likewise distinct––conversational in tone, bending into parodies of scientific, commercial, and utilitarian language, full of slang, neologisms, and English vocabulary, peppered with odd characters sporting absurd names (usually in English) as well as references to various celebrities and the Chat Noir crowd.
The Revenant Archive currently holds seven issues of the Chat Noir journal, spanning the summer of 1889 to that of 1891, as well as a print from the mainstream American Harpers New Monthy Magazine depicting the loosely-defined editorial board meeting over breakfast at the cabaret, passing manuscripts, drinks, and proofs amongst each other. Other issues will be added as circumstances allow. Due to their folio size, the full pages will not fit on the available scanner, so the images below are unfortunately cropped.

The full run of the magazine can be read online at Gallica.


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[David?] Merwart, Editorial Breakfast at the Chat Noir. 1887. Etching. From Harper's New Monthly Magazine. Harpers: New York.  9.5" x 7".



Although the masthead lists Rodolphe Salis and Alphonse Allais as editors, it also lists Maurice Isabey as "Administrator" and two "secretaries of direction," who were Georges Auriol and a rotating cast of Chat Noir habitués, plus occasional fleeting editorial positions such as "Musician of the Future," held by Donizetti in December 1889 and "Always forgotten," held by Chapsal the same month. In fact, writing and editing the journal was a collective effort, usually done in the cabaret itself in informal conditions, as shown in this etching from Harpers. The back contains a page of text about the Chat Noir cabaret from the magazine article that it illustrates; the online seller did not make clear that the print was taken from a disemboweled book.

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Le Chat Noir. ed. Rodolphe Sallis & Alphonse Allais. Year 8, No. 398. (Saturday, Aug. 31, 1889). Paris. Folio, 4 pp.

  
Includes, among others, a comic Alphonse Allais tale about the army, a parody of medieval romance by Rodolphe Sallis, a poem by Paul Verlaine dedicated to Gabriel Vicaire, an unusual number of illustrations, and a prominent advert for the "incomparable" Cusenier brand absinthe.

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Le Chat Noir. ed. Rodolphe Sallis & Alphonse Allais. Year 8, No. 404. (Saturday, Oct. 12, 1889). Paris. Folio, 4 pp.


 
Includes, among others, an article by Allais on Sapeck, a key figure of the Hydropathe, Fumiste, and Incoherent groups, who had recently been interred in a psychiatric hospital; an experimental sonnet by Verlaine dedicated to the Decadent-Anarchist Lautrent Tailhade; and playful poems by Fernand Clerget and Albert Sérieys that are both built around the repetition of the word "sommes".

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 Le Chat Noir. ed. Rodolphe Sallis & Alphonse Allais. Year 8, No. 405. (Saturday, Dec. 14, 1889). Paris. Folio, 4 pp.
 

Includes, among others, a comedic story by Alphonse Allais, a poem from Paul Verlaine to the Decadent writer & organiser Jean Moreas, an attack by Auriol on the mainstream newspaper Petit Journal, a poem by Moreau-Verneuil on 'The Devil's Beauty', a promotional blurb for the Chat Noir cabaret, and a satirical article by Léon Gandillot in which whole lines have been reduced to lines of ellipses broken up by single letters (cf., "–C..... q... m.. un... f... s... a...... d. m... q..... c...")

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Le Chat Noir. ed. Rodolphe Sallis & Alphonse Allais. Year 8, No. 413. (Saturday, Dec. 14, 1889). Paris. Folio, 4 pp.
 

Includes, among others, a humorous story by Alphonse Allais and another by Georges Auriol, a poem by Verlaine dedicated to Mallarmé, an account of the current nightly set-list at the Chat Noir cabaret, and book and theatre reviews.

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Le Chat Noir. ed. Rodolphe Sallis & Alphonse Allais. Year 8, No. 414. Special Christmas Issue. (Saturday, Dec. 21, 1889). Paris. Folio, 6 pp.

 
The heavily illustrated Christmas issue includes, among others, a story about Christmas at an army post by Alphonse Allais, a tightly-rhymed Christmas poem by Paul Verlaine written for the editor Rodolphe Sallis (who also contributes a short story), a prose poem about an orphan by Stéphane Mallarmé, musical notation for the song "Christmas" by Georges Flagerolle and lyrics Adrien Dezarmy, music for another tune by Leopold Dauphin performed at the cabaret, with an epigraph by Gautier, set inside a drawing by Georges Auriol, who also contributes lyrics to a 'Christmas Song', and a special colour-printed insert with a comic strip by Sabbatier about the liason between a painter and his model.
 
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 Le Chat Noir. ed. Rodolphe Sallis & Alphonse Allais. Year 9, No. 463. (Saturday, Nov. 29, 1890). Paris. Folio,  pp.

 
Includes, among others, an illustrated short story written in archaic French by Rodolphe Salis, and a gem of a poem by Verlaine dedicated to the Decadent poet Jean Richepin (whose book Les Truandailles is also reviewed briefly in the issue). 

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Le Chat Noir. ed. Rodolphe Sallis & Alphonse Allais. Year 10, No. 493. (Saturday, June 27, 1891). Paris. Folio, 4 pp. 
 
 
Includes, among others, a short story by George Auriol about the adventures of "Tony Lobster" in Chicago, and an installment of Verlaine's memoirs of the Paris Commune (initially supportive, he eventually rejected it).

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